Gwinnett schools’ return to work plan brings outcry

Gwinnett County Public Schools has announced a plan requiring staff to return to work at its 141 schools and other facilities. Gwinnett may be the first school system in the state to take this step, and the memo circulated to principals Thursday caused a stir.

Director-level staff and above are to return to work on-site on Wednesday. All other staff except teachers will return to schools on Monday, May 11. Teachers will return to classrooms on Monday, May 18.

“We want to make sure it is clear that students aren’t returning to the schools,” said spokeswoman Sloan Roach. “We need teachers to close out their classrooms before families come to pick up personal items.”

Several teachers and others bombarded reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with emails, texts and social media posts late Thursday into Friday. Many were concerned that their health and safety were being put at risk.

Jonathan Phillips, of Denver has two younger sisters who teach at Gwinnett schools. He reached out to The AJC asking if the school district has “the necessary (personal protection equipment) to protect not only my sisters but the rest of their teachers, their staff and their faculty?”

Gwinnett said it will supply staff with masks and gloves and custodial staff will increase the frequency of cleaning high-traffic areas and points of contact such as doorknobs. Additionally everyone is asked to maintain social distance.

One teacher crafted a carefully-worded letter expressing his lack of faith in his district leadership’s judgment.

“The decision to have employees of Gwinnett County Public Schools return to work is not only shortsighted; it reflects a county that does not care about the wellbeing of its workers,” began the letter signed Jairus E. Hallums.

He indicated he’s concerned that “political and economic priorities” are “superseding the care of, and compassion for, human beings.”

Hallums stated he has children and with them at home, there is a caregiver issue.

Andrew Parsons is also a father and a teacher. He said he was a little caught off guard by the back-to-work summons, mainly because both he and his wife are teachers.

“We had a virtual staff meeting today and the chat stream was a mile long,” he said. “The main questions were about health and child care.”

But Parsons said he and his wife will take advantage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. If an employee experiences symptoms, has been ordered or advised to quarantine, is caring for someone who is quarantined, or is caring for a child whose school or daycare provider is closed, he or she may be entitled to paid leave.

“I’m actually eager to get back to the school,” he said.

As the band teacher, he has a lot of work that can only be done on the premises.

“I’m the only one in the room and since the students aren’t there it should be safe for other teachers too,” he said. “If we try to make it work, we can make it work.”

The decision to send staff back to facilities wasn’t made lightly, said Roach.

“Right up until the governor decided not to extend the shelter-in-place order, we’d put together several plans to get staff back on-site,” she said. “We’ve already called some back.”

The on-site plan calls for teachers to be present for a week. The first three days will be digital learning days and the last two will be for staff development. The school district is minimizing the number of people in a building at any given time. The general guidance is one person for every 200 square feet and no more than 10 people in one area as long as they can stay six feet from each other.

“Finals are the week before, so that last week is for turning in make-up work and missed assignments,” said Roach.

The plan was laid out to principals first to allow them to modify it for what works at their school, she added.

“I talked to two principals today. One is going to stagger times that teachers come to work. Another is going to rotate when people are in the building,” said Roach. “They know their staff. They know their buildings. We’re letting them figure out the best way to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

The American Federation of Teachers anticipated school districts would need teachers to return to school soon, even if in-person classes hadn’t resumed. It released a 20-page “Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities” on Wednesday. It came from a collaboration of public health professionals, union leaders and frontline workers to prepare for what happens next in the period between slowing the spread and truly eradicating the virus.

It says, “Reducing the number of new cases is a prerequisite for transitioning to reopening plans on a community-by-community basis.” Data from the Georgia Department of Public Health shows that Gwinnett at 1,844 cases and 58 deaths reported has the third highest rates of COVID-19 in the state.

As for the other big question, no decisions have been made about next school year, said Roach.

“We have several contingency plans,” she added. “We may begin school remotely, being in person on the scheduled calendar or we may follow a modified calendar.”

American Federation of Teachers school reopening plan

• Maintain physical distancing until the number of new cases declines for at least 14 consecutive days.

• Put in place the infrastructure and resources to test, trace and isolate new cases.

• Deploy the public health tools that prevent the virus’ spread and aligning them with education strategies that meet the needs of students.

• Involve workers, unions, parents and communities in all planning.

• Invest in recovery: Do not abandon America’s communities or forfeit America’s future.

Access the full 20-page document: